Friday, December 17, 2010

Young Musicians

We were invited to attend a concert at a local elementary school to see our friends' daughter play in the band. It's been a while since I've been at an event like this. These are mostly very new musicians and they achieved a number of the goals their teachers set out for them. It took me back to my junior high school days in the band and orchestra. When the music teacher visited our sixth grade class and encouraged us to pick an instrument if we didn't already have one, I chose the oboe - the duck in Peter and the Wolf. Since there was no other oboe player, I got the part. I even got to use a new oboe if I took private lessons besides. I never got very good, though I did learn how to make my reeds - a necessary skill for oboists.   Then in high school the required classes squeezed out electives like music. I'm glad there weren't home videos in those days so I don't have to listen to what we sounded like.

I also want to note that I was pleased to go to a concert at an elementary school in December where only one Christmas related piece - Jingle Bells - was played.  I realize that for some, this change is seen as what's wrong with the United States today.  But as a Jew, who was there as a guest of Hindu friends, it was the first time I felt like I was welcome as an equal at a December school event.   I felt like someone had thought about the feelings of non-Christians and decided to respect them. 

Christmas is a religious holiday.  In public schools, kids in minority religions definitely feel pressure to go along with the majority religion.  I can only ask Christians to imagine their children being in a situation where all the kids are expected to sing songs that proclaim faith to a deity of another religion.  It's very uncomfortable for the children and the parents.  I realize that many Christians feel that as the majority, they should be allowed to celebrate Christmas in school, that kids of other religions, or no religion, should just adapt. 

That makes me think of my Chinese students in Beijing who claimed there was no discrimination at their school against non-Han Chinese students.  One student said to me that he'd thought about what I said and he really believed that the Mongolian and Tibetan students in our class were treated like all the others.  I said he's probably right, except for one thing:  their education has all been in Chinese, not their own language, and they have spent all their school time learning a Chinese version of history and culture, not their own.

Another student told me everyone was equal in China.  I asked if a Tibetan could be president of China.  His answer, after a pause, was, "Vice President."  When I pointed out that if they couldn't be president, then they weren't equal.  His logical response was, "But 93% of the population is Han Chinese.  It wouldn't make sense for a Tibetan to be their president."  To which I could only say, "That may be true, but then they are second class citizens."

I do think that comparative religion should be taught in schools so that people know about various religions - including atheism.  But I don't think different religious holidays should be celebrated in school until all religions are treated with equal respect, and not with the attitude of, "OK, put in a Hanukkah song and then we can get back to the Christmas stuff." (I know that most parents are respectful really do want their children to be exposed to other religions.)

That said, there is some very beautiful Christmas music which I learned because I played in the orchestra.  I would not have learned them under today's policies.  That would be a loss for me.  It all boils down to respect and power.  As long as there are teachers and parents who believe it is their duty to convert others to their religion, celebrating religious holidays in schools is problematic.  And some Christians feel the commercialization of Christmas diminishes its religious significance and would prefer to celebrate it at home and in church. I recognize that it's hard to 'lose' something that you take for granted - like Christmas celebrations in public schools - and I hope those parents who feel strongly about Christmas can find ways to pass on these traditions with celebrations in their families and at churches, as non-Christians have always celebrated their religious holidays. 

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